Manila, Feb. 25, 2003 (Tribune) -- The deployment of American troops for combat duty against Moslem group in the Philippines' Southern Mindanao Region may have been a done deal since the first week of this month and Manila is now only denying the secret agreement because the pact has become public and severely criticized even by political allies of President Arroyo.

At the Philippine government's request, The Washington Post reported yesterday, Pentagon planners designed a program to counter the kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao that would put US troops on the frontlines.

Last Feb. 4, The Post said that US officials presented to President Arroyo and senior Philippine government officials their proposal for the joint military exercises Balikatan 03-1 in the region designed to eliminate the bandit gang that had victimized Americans and other foreigners particularly in Mindanao's Basilan province.

The plan, it added, quoting a US official, was drafted in terms that sought to avoid the controversy of last year's Balikatan 02-1 joint war games in Basilan that resulted in the rescue of an American and a Filipino held hostage for long by the Abu Sayyaf.

It was Feb. 4 when US Army Chief of Staff Gen Eric Shinseki arrived in Manila for talks with top officials, among them Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Dionisio Santiago and Shinseki's Filipino counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gregorio Camiling.

Camiling, when asked then if they and Shinseki discussed the US-Iraq standoff, said: "That's not the specific agenda, that's not part of the agenda. It's a farewell visit" for the US military official, who was said to be ''retiring soon.''

The Pentagon last week bared what seemed to be the proposal for the Balikatan 03-1 launched last Sunday and redubbed Bayanihan Exercises that could only be the product of Shinseki's visit.

Its disclosure was also reported by the Post as well as The New York Times, LA Times and UPI on Feb. 21.

Reyes and Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the US Pacific Command, met in Honolulu also yesterday to discuss plans on the deployment of US troops to Sulu.

The Defense chief will later fly to Washington for talks with his US counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, and other US officials to discuss counter-terrorism and other issues.

In Mindanao, Lt. Gen. Narciso Abaya, Southern Command (Southcom) chief, also yesterday said "big numbers of US soldiers" would be arriving in Zamboanga City in the next few weeks.

The soldiers, he added, will later be sent to Jolo island, Sulu's provincial capital and site of the most intense Abu Sayyaf activity.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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